I don’t do an extensive amount of travel, but I find myself in various parts of the United States a couple times a year. Usually it’s for academic conferences, but also visiting family and friends (the Yahtzee is getting both in one trip). One of my favorite things to do is visit Orthodox parishes all over the country, observing the different flavors of American culture through the lens of the Church. Because the Church is the most familiar place to me in any locale (followed closely by Wal-Mart and the Super 8), the familiar similarities make the differences even more striking.
I love hearing “Blessed is the kang’um” at the start of the Liturgy in Texas. There is a para-Russian joy in this California boy as he watches the snowfall through stained-glass windows during Orthros in Illinois. The “college student convert” parishes dotting the West Coast, the “holy storage room” chapels in the rural southeast, the great cathedrals of the immigrant-heavy Midwest: all radically different, all radically Orthodox. I’ve received communion by leavened-wafer intinction at a Western Rite parish; I’ve seen a congregation celebrate two dates for Christmas yet remain under one roof; I’ve attended Orthodox Vespers at the main altar of a Franciscan monastery. As American as we are Orthodox, e pluribus unum doesn’t do us justice.
But I would never play Pollyanna: with these rich goods, of course, come difficulties and troubles. The disjointedness of Orthodox jurisdictions makes it possible for the faithful to pick and choose their moral authorities. Often, in situations where uniformity of praxis is vital, there is fundamental disagreement (such as fasting or the old/new calendar). Many Orthodox priests are unable to deliver a homily that isn’t a straw man of another Christian tradition. Sometimes I want to participate in the Divine Liturgy, but encounter the hardship of vastly different English translations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even parish to parish. The worst is when, in a parish of 100% English-speakers, surprise! The liturgy will include no English. Invite a friend to church? Not likely, until I’ve vetted it.
Yet striking out to a parish you’ve never attended is a vital and necessary practice for establishing Pan-Orthodox unity in this country. Some of us are fortunate enough to live in an area with several parishes in close vicinity (where I live, there are three within five minutes’ walk of each other). Others have to drive several hours to the nearest parish. Yet those of us who travel should take advantage of the wealth of culture available to us as American Orthodox Christians: the spiritual and cultural heritage of Christianity’s first thousand years, preserved in its fullness in the United States (of all places). Route 66 has become, in a sense, a new Mediterranean Sea: cross over it, and you will find a dozen different cultures that share your same Christian faith.
I wanted to offer in this post some suggestions for travelers by land, sea, and air, who want to attend church in an unfamiliar place, as well as some “flip side” comments for parishes that want to better welcome visitors:
1) Plan your trip around the Church calendar. As outlandish an idea as this may be in our fast-paced world, the best way to experience Orthodoxy around the country is to think ahead about when you will be where. Give yourself time on Sundays and major feast days to put God first, and afterward catch your plane. THE FLIP SIDE: Kudos to parish websites featuring an online calendar such as the one from Orthodox Web Solutions, making it much easier to plan around worship service times.
2) Google it. Even with some of the excellent parish databases being put together online, Google Maps is still the best place to find a parish location and website. There are two potential pitfalls to this method. One, even parish websites with up-to-date service time information and calendars are often incorrect. Unless you have a copy of the latest bulletin, your best bet when attending for the first time is to give them a call and ask the time of the service you would like to attend. Two, don’t accidentally go to a schismatic or “poser” Orthodox parish. A list of these groups was compiled once; I’m not sure how up-to-date it is anymore. THE FLIP SIDE: Priests and parish administrators, remember that your website is often the “first impression” you give to inquirers and visitors. It deserves some attention. Ask tech-savvy volunteers from your congregation to help maintain it.
3) Find a service book and follow along. Differing translations, hymns, and tones can sometimes make it difficult to follow along (the ACOB-USA “Committee on Liturgy” is ostensibly working to remedy this as part of American Orthodox unity). Pick up a service book! They’re not always easy to find. Check the back, near the candles, or under the pews. If you have a non-Orthodox visitor with you, encourage them to do the same. We often forget how disorienting the worship of the Christian orient can be to the uninitiated. THE FLIP SIDE: All parishes, even those discouraging congregational singing, should offer texts for parishioners to follow along. Americans like to know what’s going on; if you want them to come back, help them feel like they were able to understand and participate.
4) Stay for the after-party. Some of my best experiences visiting parishes have been at the ubiquitous “Orthodox coffee hour.” Good food, good coffee, and making plenty of “small world” connections?what’s not to like? THE FLIP SIDE: I love it when, after the service, the priest welcomes all the visitors and invites them to stay and fellowship. I especially love it when parishioners come up to introduce themselves to me. Simple acts like this are very meaningful. “I was hungry, and you fed me (delicious baklava).”
5) E-mail encouragement. Priests don’t get ordained for all the pats on the back, but an encouraging word can make a lifetime of service feel worthwhile. If your visit to a parish brings you closer to God, e-mail the priest and say thank you. They will really appreciate it. THE FLIP SIDE: Thank you, all the priests out there. Your faithful service has meant so much.